02/02/2017, 15.31
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The movie ‘Silence’, apostasy and the joy of martyrdom

by Bernardo Cervellera

The movie is not an apology for apostasy. It has the courage to raise religious questions about God, suffering, his silence in an age of indifference. It reiterates the topicality of martyrdom, but lacks the Catholic joy shown by Japanese saints and all the martyrs of the Church. Japan is not a "swamp," but a land of concerns and conversions.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Many friends, priests and lay people, have asked me to talk and write about Martin Scorsese’s movie Silence. Since I cannot answer every one individually, I decided to offer everyone the following thoughts, which I publish today. AsiaNews has already spoken of the value of the movie by the American director in an interview with Jesuit Emilio Zanetti, who is a friend of Scorsese and contributed to movie.

The movie Silence by Martin Scorsese is first of all a good movie for its clear and simple photography, for its rhythm, alternating fast and dramatic scenes with slow and reflective moments or dialogues, for the theme – God’s silence – that the director took on with courage at a time like ours in which there is not only indifference towards God but also towards talking about God.

The scenes I found most beautiful are the aerial scenes: that of the three missionaries – Valignano, Rodrigues and João de Santa Marta – going up the stairs in the building in Macau (perhaps the Church of St Paul), that of the ship that solemnly sails the China Sea and brings the two young missionaries to the coast of Japan. They are like a gaze at the earth from the sky, a gaze that someone might call indifferent but are instead full of participation. They are like God’s point of view (or one of his points of view), taking into account that other points of view – in which the face of Jesus from el Greco’s painting appears – are on earth and have the face of the men who are killed or who trample the sacred image.


The film and the story that is told are not an apology of the apostasy of the faith. They are a disturbing question as to why, in the beauty of our natural world, there is pain, death, persecution, hatred, and conflict between religions. From this point of view, the film – I repeat – is brave because it raises questions about faith in a world that is post-faith and reiterates with a shocking topicality the reality of Christian martyrdom (as evinced in the Middle East, Africa, China, North Korea) and the question of why to die for a faith, for God.

The film is a deeply religious opus – like an ongoing query, a question to the God who does not speak with a sensible voice, but who drives men and women, priests and lay people, to give their lives and risk death every day for Him.

It is a Christian movie. There is a lot of mercy for each choice the men make, even for betrayal, even for the apostasy used as a method of survival (see the character of Kichijiro who, each time he abjures, asks for forgiveness).

Catholic joy

Maybe it's not a Catholic film because it lacks a fundamental dimension of Catholicism, which is joy. But this – I believe – is due to the fact that it closely stuck to the book of Shūsaku Endō, which is a joyless book. The great writer has always experienced within himself the difficulties of being a Catholic in a society that looks to this faith as something foreign. During his lifetime, he has had to face the same questions that Ferreira did - the renegade Jesuit – who asked himself on the way the faith "from the West" can be embodied in the East and the Japanese “swamp".

From Shūsaku Endō, Scorsese takes the problem of a God who is Father, who gives rules, who drives his children to martyrdom, instead of being a mother, merciful, accommodating, welcoming of every human tremor. From the Japanese writer, the American director also takes the issue of a Christianity that is confronted with Buddhism, and that in the end there is only one God who hides beyond the two traditions. In this we see how the problems suggested in the book and the movie are very close to those post-modern positions that border on relativism, which in the name of tolerance and generic love pass over every historical tradition, and debase the truth.

Scorsese did not take the movie’s ending from the book: the wife given to Rodrigues after his apostasy secretly puts a small crucifix it the hands of his body. In my opinion this represents a sign of hope and attachment to Christ by the director, beyond all the betrayals and weaknesses that one can experience in life.

Singing to martyrdom

Joy – and even humour – could have come forth had the director paid closer attention to Japanese history and the history of the Japanese martyrs.

The chronicles of the time say in fact that Japanese martyrs were joyful, happy to become martyrs for Jesus. They offered themselves to suffer for Him, and refused to hide. Many of them sang as they walked to the gallows and loudly recited psalms even when they were nailed to the cross.

In the film instead, the Christians are portrayed as afraid of dying, of wanting to stay alive, complaining about pain in an atmosphere of tragedy. Only one of the martyrs sings the Tantum ergo as the waves cover him and sweep him away.

The history of the Christian martyrs, however, is a story of gratitude to Christ for giving them martyrdom and an overwhelming joy in the expectation of heaven.

Rich and Poor

Speaking about heaven, it is mentioned in the movie with doubts it (and this is understandable in a post-modern atmosphere that does not believe in fairy tales). The Japanese Christians presented by Scorsese see heaven only in negative, and one can say . . . material terms, a place where people do not suffer anymore, where people do not work like slaves anymore, where people do not pay taxes to their earthly lords anymore.

This seems inspired by a post-modern mind-set, in which faith is understandably accepted only by poor people, slaves, people on the brink of despair, but is not for cultured people, for the rich, for those who occupy high positions.

Instead, the story of the Japanese martyrs tells us of people from the Japanese court – lords and knights – who converted to Christianity and accepted martyrdom, like Takayama Ukon, the feudal lord who converted to Catholicism in the 16th century, who will be beatified soon, perhaps by Pope Francis himself when he goes to Japan this year.

The history should also be corrected with respect to the number of Jesuits who abjured their faith in the 17th century. Ferreira’s story is documented, but nothing is known of other priests who left the faith, got married and become instruments of persecution against Christians. Some Japanese sources mention four Jesuit priests in addition to Ferreira, but more recent sources (see H. Jedin) exclude this because the four in question were never released and died in prison.


In conclusion, it seems to me that the movie is a great way to get spectators to ask themselves deep questions, to shake the indifference on the martyrdom of many Christians in our time, to ask for mercy and compassion for human misery, but it still awaits a testimony of faith in joy by Christians.

In this regard, it is worth noting that in Japan many Christians continued to live their faith in secret during nearly two centuries of persecution, passing it on with courage and shrewdness. This is a sign that Japan is not the "swamp" the film and the book describe.

Moreover, even today, although there are a few conversions to Christianity, the Japanese are greatly concerned about the meaning of their lives, overwhelmed by work, habits, traditions that dull personal conscience. Abroad, however, where pressures and social homogeneity are weaker, we see miraculous conversions of young people, entrepreneurs, and people involved in the fashion industry.

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